CM . . . .
Volume V Number 4 . . . . October 16, 1998
Squatting in the doorway, Marta watches her mother stroll down to the river past other women's anger. Her long body, the neck as supple and strong as a third arm, hold her laundry basket balanced on her head. Neighbour women too chunky and short limbed to carry their baskets this way swear in envy at the village's black women. They taunt Marta's mother the most. Caught up in the rhythm of their curses, Marta gets to her feet. The glaring dust-drenched air dries her throat. -- Negrita, negrita, Marta murmurs. --Come back inside, her grandmother says, taking her by the arm. She leads her into the dim outre room. -- The one thing your mami has that these women envy is my son.--Life is not easy for Marta Lopez. Scorned for her dark skin, caught between her mother and grandmother's traditional beliefs and the Catholicism of the village priest, she is an outsider in her remote Ecuadorean village. Life carries on without change until the army sends a crew of soldiers to construct a military control post not far from the village. Like her, one of the young soldiers, Gonzalo, is different from his comrades: quieter, less crude, a Christian who dreams of a career as a musician. Part One ends as their life together begins.
Part Two finds them as immigrants in Montreal. Isolated by language and a strange culture, confused by governmental bureaucracies, Marta and Gonzalo are exploited by other latino immigrants with whom language is the only common ground. Their marriage crumbles, and Marta scrambles to support herself and her daughter, Maria. A conversation with a stranger she meets in the park marks a turning point in her fortunes, and, as the book ends, we wonder what really happens to Marta.
Henighan's depiction of village life in Ecuador and Montreal, seen through the eyes of an immigrant who speaks neither French nor English, is strong and credible. Language - French, English, Spanish - is both a barrier and an open portal to acceptance and identity. Language confuses, as well. Throughout the novel, short intercalary chapters fast-forward us into the present, offering vignettes of Marta's life. It takes some time before the reader fits then into the context of the rest of the story, although many questions about Marta and Maria remain unanswered. Still, despite this small weakness, The Places Where Names Vanish offers a rare perspective on the latino experience in canada, and does so in a unique voice.
Joanne Peters is the teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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